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A historically Black neighborhood’s revitalization plan awaits Cornelius Town Board

A group of people look over the schematics for the Smithville Revitalization Plan at June 7 informational meeting in Cornelius. The plan seeks to redevelop an aging historically Black neighborhood. The plans were developed by local Smithville residents. and the city of Cornelius will vote on the plans Monday.
David Boraks
A group of people look over the schematics for the Smithville Revitalization Plan at a June 7 informational meeting in Cornelius. The plan seeks to redevelop an aging historically Black neighborhood. The plans, which the town of Cornelius will vote on Monday, were developed by local Smithville residents.

Ron Potts has lived in the Cornelius neighborhood of Smithville almost all of his life. Except when he was away at college and early adult years, Smithville has been Potts’ home.

“When I came back to Cornelius, the thing that I noticed is how Cornelius itself had prospered. But Smithville had deteriorated,” Potts said. “Absolutely deteriorated.”

In the eyes of many of its residents, Smithville — which is largely Black — has seen its fair share of neglect.

It took until 1972 for the town of Cornelius to actually annex the area despite years of pressure from Smithville residents. Town officials cited the community’s lack of a strong tax base as its reason to not bring the community into the town’s boundaries.

Lisa Mayhew-Jones, president of the Smithville CommUnity Coalition board, thinks it wasn’t the strength of their tax base that kept them out of the town. Instead, Mayhew-Jones says it was racism.

“You know, it happened when segregation was still legal. So, you know, if you go back and look at the civil rights legislation, this is, what, a year and a half, no more than two years right after the passage of it,” Mayhew Jones said. “It's not a huge mystery.

But even after being brought into town limits, many in Smithville feel like the town has failed to truly invest in their neighborhood.

“We've been so marginalized and kept down,” life-long Smithville resident Vannessa Ramseur said. “Moneys have gone everywhere from the town except to that community, which is a part of the town of Cornelius.”

But, Cornelius Town Board members will be voting on June 20 on paving the way for a new — potentially brighter — future for Smithville.

With an influx of federal American Rescue Plan funds, Deputy Town Manager Wayne
Herron says that there’s an opportunity to redevelop the community while still maintaining its historic character.

“They're looking to preserve the history through the preservation of the architecture,” Herron said. “I think there are plans and ways to preserve the history and add workforce housing and change the way the neighborhood looks. And you can do that together.”

But for some residents, the question is: is the plan for Smithville or is the plan pursuing the interests of a town that has historically failed to focus on their interests?

A Plan with Local Roots

The Smithville CommUnity Coalition is an organization with roots in 1968. It was originally founded prior to the annexation of Smithville, during a time when residents couldn’t rely on Cornelius and instead had to rely on each other.

At that time, they attempted to offer some of the services the town would not, like opening a community center or putting up street lights.

Pott’s father, Wilson Potts, was an original member of the coalition. In 2011, the Smithville CommUnity Coalition was reformed. Like his father, Ron Potts is a member of the coalition today.

“We reestablished it to revitalize and make Smithville a nice place to live and to keep it affordable,” Potts said.

A Cornelius community group told town commissioners Monday it needs financial support from the town and Mecklenburg County to carry out a proposed $11 million redevelopment of the historically Black Smithville neighborhood.

Smithville is aging. Many of its residents are in their 70s or older, said Willie Jones – the architect of the revitalization plan. Plus, some residents have died leaving a hole in the community.

Because of that, Potts wants to see the community live on, which requires bringing in new residents.

New life. Young people into the community. Making it attractive,” Potts said. “There's blight in Smithville. And so if we can turn that around with new structures? Absolutely, we want it. We want it to be a place where we can say we're proud to be a part of.”

The Smithville Coalition conceived of the Smithville Revitalization Plan to provide a new framework for redeveloping the neighborhood while also seeking to preserve its important history as a Black neighborhood.

We're then trying to create a neighborhood of working people, but also working people who work in environments where diversity is the norm,” Jones said. “The final plan is to create a neighborhood where the new people coming in have an appreciation of diversity and respect for the history of a place like Smithville. “

On June 20, the Cornelius Town Board will vote on whether to endorse the Smithville Revitalization Redevelopment Plan.

This land-use plan offers a vision for how Smithville could be redeveloped while also keeping housing affordable and in reach for existing and former residents, Jones said.

 The land use plan for Smithville Revitalization Plan will be put up for a vote on Monday. Willie Jones, who spearheaded the revitalization plan, says the Smithville CommUnity Coalition wants to start developing the properties to the right, starting with the single family homes on South Hill Street and the condominium's on Nannie Potts Lane.
David Boraks
The land use plan for Smithville Revitalization Plan will be put up for a vote on Monday. Willie Jones, who spearheaded the plan, says the Smithville CommUnity Coalition wants to start by developing many of the properties to the right, starting with the single family homes on South Hill Street and the condominium's on Nannie Potts Lane.

The land-use plan envisions new residential units being added to the Smithville area. It’d add a mix of new single-family homes, townhouses, apartment buildings, communal green spaces and new commercial properties. It would also include an expansion of 205 new residential units. In total, the area would have 260 units.

Some of those properties would be developed on land that is unowned or unoccupied. Others would be already inhabited homes that would be acquired for new development, Jones said.

But the redevelopment plan is completely voluntary, meaning that the town would not be kicking anyone out of their homes against their will.

“A private individual might say, ‘OK, I'm at a certain age, I don't want to maintain my yard. I would like to move into something where things are done for me,’” Herron said. "Well, they can sell their house to a developer or to the coalition. The coalition will either develop it or find a person to develop it.”

The redevelopment plan offers incentives for developers who choose to build in line with the town’s goals for an area.

For instance, current zoning policies in Cornelius would only allow a developer to construct single-family homes in Smithville. But now, if a developer builds in line with the Smithville Revitalization Plan, the developer could possibly build a multi-unit townhouse or apartment building and receive some town money to help subsidize the cost of development.

But the catch is, that developer would then have to meet specific requirements.

In the Smithville Revitalization Plan, a developer would be mandated to keep the housing affordable and prioritize tenants like current and former Smithville residents and town employees. The redevelopment plan is part of the mayor of Cornelius’ workforce housing plan.

“One of the issues that we have in Cornelius is the fact that 85% of the people that work in Cornelius can't afford to live here,” Mayor Woody Washam said. “That's not acceptable to me. It's not acceptable to my board. It's not acceptable to this committee that we're talking about.”

The town has already earmarked $3 million for the Smithville project in its upcoming budget, Herron said.

Moving forward

At an informational meeting June 7, many Smithville residents took issue with the amount of money the town has provided to the project, which has also been exacerbated by the town’s historical failure to invest in Smithville.

The Smithville CommUnity Coalition asked for $12 million to start off, but both the town and the county only offered a fraction of that. And Ramseur thinks it shows them that the town still isn’t ready to invest in the needs of Smithville.

“It's up in the air for five, six men and a mayor in the town of Cornelius to say, ‘oh, Smithfield Community, you're going to stay just like you are stagnant. We're not going to allow these funds to give you the basic needs: infrastructure, water, sewage, basic things that are needed to live.’”

Ramseur notes that the Smithville CommuUnity Coalition has been working on this plan for years. The only thing stopping them is the money from their governmental partners.

“If we were given those funds that the Smithfield Coalition has asked for, then we will get a start to getting where we are,” Ramseur said. “This money isn't Cornelius' money. It was given to the town to distribute where it was needed. And there's definitely a need in the community of Smithville.”

But Herron said that — while not at the full funding level the Smithville CommUnity Coalition requested — it is giving them enough to start things off.

“It's common to phase and, you know, ‘Let's take this first $3 million. Let's see what we can do with that,’” Herron said. “And then once we complete that project, let's come back to the table and let's see if we can do another amount.”

The entire cost of the project is somewhere near $70 million, Jones said. And that $12 million figure is accounting for many things that you can’t get loans or private investment for, such as improving roads or removing lead pipes.

But he still thinks that the coalition will be able to find a way to find the funding.

We think that, you know, we're going to get to the number we need,” Jones said. “It's just going to be more circuitous and more time-intensive.”

Plus, Jones recognizes that the risk of doing nothing will cause gentrification, forcing out families who have lived in Smithville for their entire lives. Because of that, they’re going to try and make the revitalization plan work.

Gentrification and displacement is coming rapidly if we don't intercede on behalf of the people,” Jones said.

But there has also been traction within the non-profit sector, with United Way contributing some funding and pending bills in the state legislature that would offer money to the Smithville project.

But ultimately, the results — preserving the community — is important to people who live there.

My concern is that once those people pass on. Their descendants don't live here. They’re going to sell those properties to the highest bidder,” Potts said. “And then what's going to happen to the rest of us who want to stay here? Will we be able to age in place?”

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Corrected: June 17, 2022 at 2:27 PM EDT
- A previous version of this article misstated the number of units the Smithville Revitalization Plan includes. It is 205 units, not 155 units.
- Deputy Town Manager Wayne Herron and Mayor Woody Washam's names were incorrect in the previous version.
-Cornelius was referred incorrectly as a city. Cornelius is a town, not a city.
Lars Lonnroth is a journalism and political science student at Mercer University in Georgia. He's interning at WFAE.